Ulster Peace Accord Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Ulster Peace Accord made it possible for the peoples of Northern Ireland (Ulster), the Republic of Ireland (Eire), and Great Britain to be involved in determining Northern Ireland’s political future.

Summary of Event

The Ulster Peace Accord, also known as the Joint Declaration of Peace and the Downing Street Declaration, has deep roots in Anglo-Irish history. It grew from the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, which recognized three interconnections related to Northern Ireland (Ulster): the factions within Ulster itself, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and the Irish and British peoples. The next major step was the 1987 bombing in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, which took place on Remembrance Day (November 8), killing eleven. As a result of that tragedy, John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, sent a letter to Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Féin, Sinn Féin the political wing of the Irish Republican Army Irish Republican Army (IRA), stating Hume’s belief that the terrorist bombings of the IRA were doing more harm than good. Further, Hume contended, the focus needed to be on uniting the people rather than the Republic of Ireland and Ulster. The next major step took place in 1992, when Sinn Féin issued its discussion paper Toward a Lasting Peace in Ireland, in which Gerry Adams acknowledged that Northern Ireland Protestants as well as the Irish Republic had legitimate needs and concerns. Adams also cited the importance of the European Union. Ulster Peace Accord (1993) Northern Ireland;Ulster Peace Accord [kw]Ulster Peace Accord (Dec. 15, 1993) [kw]Peace Accord, Ulster (Dec. 15, 1993) [kw]Accord, Ulster Peace (Dec. 15, 1993) Ulster Peace Accord (1993) Northern Ireland;Ulster Peace Accord [g]Europe;Dec. 15, 1993: Ulster Peace Accord[08780] [g]United Kingdom;Dec. 15, 1993: Ulster Peace Accord[08780] [g]Ireland, Northern;Dec. 15, 1993: Ulster Peace Accord[08780] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Dec. 15, 1993: Ulster Peace Accord[08780] Adams, Gerry Hume, John Major, John Reynolds, Albert

The reason for the existence of Northern Ireland, separate and distinct from the Republic, dates to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when the English slowly gained control over Ireland, using Dublin as their center of control. During the Reformation, King Henry VIII converted to Protestantism, making England a Protestant country. Ireland refused to convert, however, and to strengthen its control over Ireland, the English monarchy encouraged large numbers of English and Scottish Protestants to settle in Ulster in the seventeenth century.

Irish resistance to English rule never ended; it rose to a new level of intensity in the late nineteenth century with the Republicans (those seeking independence) centered in Dublin and the Unionists (those favoring England) in Ulster. The Unionists were unable to maintain political control, and the Republicans gained power, forming Sinn Féin in 1905 to promote an independent, united Ireland. Neither side was willing to compromise, and on Easter Monday, 1916, Republicans seized control of the General Post Office in Dublin, holding it for five days until forced out by a superior force of British troops.

The urban, working-class revolutionaries, led by an intellectual elite, did not represent the majority of Irish until the British dealt harshly with the rebel leaders. Fifteen were hanged and hundreds more were deported, resulting in a huge increase in Sinn Féin support. In December of 1918, Sinn Féin refused to participate with the English parliament; it seized control of the Irish government and renamed it the Dáil Éireann of the Irish Republic. When the British government tried to suppress the rebellion, civil war broke out between the IRA and the Irish constabulary, supported by the British army. A brutal and bloody conflict raged for three years, until Prime Minister David Lloyd George of Great Britain persuaded Sinn Féin to negotiate, and on December 6, 1921, the Treaty of Westminster Westminster, Treaty of (1921) was signed.

Under this agreement, ratified by members of both the British and Irish assemblies, the Republic of Ireland was recognized as a member of the British Commonwealth, with the same rights and privileges as the other member states. Known as Saorstat Eireann (the Irish Free State), it failed to include the six northern counties, known collectively as Ulster. These counties, which included a Protestant majority while the rest of Ireland was predominantly Catholic, were organized under the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, Government of Ireland Act (1920) which allowed them to remain a part of the United Kingdom. The Irish Dáil narrowly approved the treaty, despite opposition from Sinn Féin and one-third of the population. Eamon de Valera, De Valera, Eamon president of the Irish Republic, resigned rather than swear allegiance to the English king. Over the next fifteen years, there was limited violence in the Republic, and the ties with the British government were loosened as the Republicans increased control. In 1937, the Republicans severed their remaining ties with the British Commonwealth through a referendum.

Sinn Féin never gave up its goal of a united Ireland. In October of 1968, rioting broke out in Londonderry during a Catholic demonstration, following a clash with police. The next year the British government ordered troops into Ulster. In 1972, a confrontation between demonstrators and the army during a civil rights march resulted in thirteen dead in what became known as Bloody Sunday. Two months later, Prime Minister Edward Hume Hume, Edward of Great Britain established direct rule of Northern Ireland from England. From that point until December 15, 1993, when the British and Irish governments issued the Joint Declaration of Peace, the violence continued, with the main combatants being the Catholic IRA and the Protestant Ulster Defense Force Ulster Defense Force (UDF).

A positive step toward peace was taken in 1985 when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher Thatcher, Margaret [p]Thatcher, Margaret;Anglo-Irish Agreement[Angloirish Agreement] of Great Britain and Garret FitzGerald, FitzGerald, Garret taoiseach (prime minister) of the Republic of Ireland, signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985)[Angloirish Agreement] which granted Ireland some say in the future of Ulster in exchange for the Republic’s assistance in helping with the terrorist problem in Northern Ireland. Further steps toward peace came in 1993, when Taoiseach Albert Reynolds recognized the need for the people of Northern Ireland to determine their own fate. Without such self-determination there would be neither stability nor well-being. Reynolds further noted that for Ireland to be unified, all parties must respect one another’s civil liberties and religious liberty. Specifically cited in the Joint Declaration, the taoiseach referred to free political thought, religious expression, the right to pursue political aspirations through democratic means, the right to seek constitutional change through peaceful means, the right to live where one chooses without intimidation, and the right to equal opportunity without regard to class or creed.


Contained within the Joint Declaration are assurances provided by both Britain’s prime minister, John Major, and Albert Reynolds. For his part, Major affirmed that the British would accede to the will of the majority. He noted that the British were willing to work with the Irish Free State because the issue of Ulster’s place needs to be resolved by the Irish themselves, “by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South.” Reynolds pledged that Eire would use neither threat nor coercion to achieve its goal of a united Ireland. He acknowledged that the Free State’s constitution would need to be amended to recognize the rights of the people of Northern Ireland.

The taoiseach recognized the “special links that exist between the peoples of Britain and Ireland” in addition to the new economic links that exist with the rest of Europe. This trend toward unity and acceptance seemed to spring from the growing rapprochement in postnationalist Europe. Both parts of Ireland and the United Kingdom are members of the European Union (EU), and all parties understand the need to establish ways the two principal parties, along with the rest of the EU, can work, trade, and live in peace with one another. The Joint Declaration devoted one of its eleven sections to the issue of these links.

To achieve a lasting peace, both parties needed to recognize the legitimacy of each other’s history and tradition. To work toward such a solution, the taoiseach recommended the creation of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, which would be responsible for finding ways for the people of the Republic and Ulster to accept that both groups have a right to their beliefs and traditions within an environment of unity and peace. Both the prime minister and the taoiseach accepted the need to create such an environment and stated that they believed “the framework they have set out offers the people of Ireland, North and South, whatever their tradition, the basis to agree that from now on their differences can be negotiated and resolved exclusively by peaceful political means.”

Major progress to this end was achieved by the Good Friday Agreement Good Friday Agreement (1998) of April 10, 1998, in which the parties agreed to the release of prisoners, decommissioning of weapons, and civil and criminal justice reforms aimed at establishing a stable and inclusive government. Voters in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland overwhelmingly supported the agreement when it was put to a vote by referendum in the same year, indicating a wide desire for greater peace. The issue of the timing of decommissioning of IRA weapons remained a major stumbling block in subsequent years, but in 2005, the IRA agreed to the complete decommissioning of all its weapons and recommitted itself exclusively to peaceful political means. Ulster Peace Accord (1993) Northern Ireland;Ulster Peace Accord

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arthur, Paul. “Anglo-Irish Joint Declaration: Towards a Lasting Peace?” Government and Opposition 29 (Spring, 1994): 218-230. Focuses on the possibilities for the success of the declaration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bardon, Jonathan. A History of Ulster. Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1992. Presents a comprehensive history of Northern Ireland. Includes maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Campbell, Flann. The Dissenting Voice: Protestant Democracy in Ulster from Plantation to Partition. Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1991. Gives a Protestant perspective on the history of Northern Ireland from the seventeenth century to the 1990’s. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Farrington, Christopher. Ulster Unionism and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Focuses on the importance of the politics of Unionism to any peace settlement in Northern Ireland. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Guelke, Adrian, ed. New Perspectives on the Northern Ireland Conflict. Brookfield, Vt.: Avebury, 1994. Collection of essays deals with the wide variety of issues—political, social, economic, and religious—that underlie the violence in Ulster.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McKittrick, David. Despatches from Belfast. Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1989. Collection of essays, many reprinted from newspaper articles, addresses the social conditions of Ulster.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mitchell, Paul, and Rick Wilford, eds. Politics in Northern Ireland. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999. Collection of essays covers a wide range of topics concerning the Northern Ireland political arena. Several chapters include discussion of the Joint Declaration of Peace. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Day, Alan, ed. Political Violence in Northern Ireland: Conflict and Conflict Resolution. New York: Praeger, 1997. Collection of essays covers the history of violence in Northern Ireland since the late 1960’s and the attempts to end that violence.

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Categories: History